British folkie Richard Thompson took under two hours to work his professorial way through "1,000 Years of Popular Music" at Lisner Auditorium on Wednesday night. To be fair, he cheated a bit, leaping from the 12th-century chart-topper "Praise to You, Queen of Heaven" to the 1590s' "So Ben Mo Ca Bon Tempo." Thompson introduced the latter as "a cuckolding song," one he sang not in modern Italian but in "that tricky, colloquial, medieval Italian we all struggle with." He was kidding, but he wasn't.
Who does this dude think he is, Sting? You might be forgiven for thinking he was someone other than Richard Thompson, Venerated Songwriter, whose material was absent, or Richard Thompson, Guitar Genius, who turned up only intermittently. His subtle, masterful fingerpicking made highlights of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and Abba's "Money Money Money" in the concert's 20th-century second half.
Thompson has toured this show for years -- it started when Playboy magazine asked him in 1999 to choose the 10 greatest songs of the millennium; he called their bluff by actually starting his list with a circa 1068 tune -- so by now, fans know what they're getting. But still: Would it have killed him to play a song or three of his own? We'd happily have traded in his version of Nelly Furtado's "Maneater" (funny on the page, boring onstage).
The best performances were the ones that relied on the amazing singer Judith Owen and vocalist-percussionist Debra Dobkin. The trio sang a beautiful 1608 madrigal, "Pipe Shepherd's Pipe," and their spunky nods to British musical hall and Gilbert and Sullivan actually sounded better than the Kinks and Ray Price covers you'd have expected Thompson to knock out of the park.
The audience was reverent enough to save requests for Thompson's own songs until the encore. He ignored them, playing a song written by Richard the Lion-Hearted when he was imprisoned after the Third Crusade. He sang only two (he said) of the song's 407 verses -- in French -- before closing with the Beatles' "It Won't Be Long." That's Thompson for you: always playing to the crowd.
-- Chris Klimek
Has Ween ever met a style it didn't like? The ridiculously under-appreciated cult band has been cranking out albums for the past 18 years that free-range across the musical landscape -- prog rock, metal, boogie-woogie, glam, reggae, alt-country, even a little mariachi -- and do it with a sly combination of wit, sophistication and jaw-dropping crudity. They brought all that to DAR Constitution Hall on Wednesday, turning in a 2 1/2 -hour set that had the small but crazy-in-love audience on its feet the whole night, cheering on classics like "Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)" and "Bananas and Blow."
Ween, for the uninitiated, is Gene and Dean Ween -- or, as their birth certificates would have it, Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo. They are world-class ironists who shift from the sublime to the raunchy without taking either too seriously. That was clear in some of the best music of the night, which came from their latest disc, "La Cucaracha" -- including the angry blues-rock number "My Own Bare Hands," the faux-smarmy "Your Party" and an upbeat version of "Object."
Despite a few weak moments -- a lackluster "I Got to Put the Hammer Down" and a narcoticized version of "Zoloft" didn't exactly make musical history -- the rest of the evening was hard-driving goodness. Gene Ween's a sharp, funny singer (and turned in some mean mandolin on "Ocean Man"), but it was really Dean's guitar-playing that drove the show. From the finger-melting delivery of "I'll Be Your Jonny on the Spot" to his channeling of Hendrix in the Afro-Caribbean boogie "Voodoo Lady," he's one of the more brain-bending guitarists around. Both got superb support from their backup trio, including the stick-twirling Claude Coleman Jr. on drums, Glenn McClelland on keyboards and Dave Dreiwitz providing fine, funky basswork throughout.
-- Stephen Brookes